Thursday, December 27, 2007

Botany of Desire

Book Cover: The Botany of Desire

Reya tipped me off to a delightful book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2001). It's the sort of popular book on evolutionary biology I usually don't enjoy, so I was both surprised and pleased to find it so interesting.

Pollan invokes coevolution to describe the ethnobotanical history of four different cultivated species, and he examines it using the "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" dilemma that served Richard Dawkins' career so well in The Selfish Gene.

Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding "buttery yellow flesh" that did it....That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I'd always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves.

Dawkins' cranky atheism and self-promotion made reading his books in grad school an annoying chore, but Pollan's fondness for his horticultural subjects shines through and lends his book an engaging charm. I usually am either bored or irritated by popular accounts of evolution, but I found much engagingly presented new information in these four essays on cultivated plants. I especially enjoyed picturing Johnny Appleseed as a Dionysian emblem.

Here are my inevitable links for further reading.


OfTroy said...

Botany is a wonderful book, and Mr Pollan is a wonderful writer. (he is regularly featured in the NY Times magazine.)

(i managed to get my copy of the book signed and personalized!)

Reya Mellicker said...

I'm so happy you enjoyed it. I love getting my head turned around so i can remember that humans are not actually the ONLY active force in the universe. Everything is lively and motivated to survive. I love the idea of co-evolving, and other wonderful bits from his book.

Oh! And ... Happy new year!!

Rebecca Clayton said...

I'm reading my way through Mr. Pollan's essays in those links, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his books. What fun to have a personalized edition!

Many people, including biologists, think of plants as inanimate objects. It's good to be reminded how forceful they are.

Larry said...

Coincidentally I just finished re-reading Pollan's 1991 book Second Nature for the third time. I skimmed a few sections, but much of the book is just full of wonderfully eloquent and insightful musings on the relations between humans and the natural world.

I also liked The Botany of Desire. Have you read The Omnivore's Dilemma?

I've read all of Pollan's books but Second Nature is still my favorite.

mysticalfeet said...

I like this book a lot. He has a new one out, called "In Defense of Food" that sounds good, too.